This October I am so excited to have my first ever solo show! It's a celebration of love, resilience and Métis culture. It's called Halfbreed Mother, and it features beautiful paintings of motherhood upon scrip papers. This is an opportunity for me to discuss Métis heritage. Often the Métis are called the Forgotten people, but we are also Indigenous peoples to this land. So, let's talk about scrip, something that has impacts to this day but is rarely discussed outside of Métis circles.
Painting on papers like this is part of a Sioux tradition, notably Sitting Bull painted on ledger papers when he was held captive by the US government. I acknowledge my Sioux ancestors when I participate in this tradition.
Scrip papers hold great significance for Métis people, especially when we’re proving our genealogy. Scrip papers prove that we have ancestors who identified, not as First Nations, but as Métis. Though these papers call us halfbreeds. Hence, the name of my show.
Halfbreed is a word that was used often in my house, even to this day. It's not meant as a derogatory word. It's been used to describe my ancestors for generations. However, the word has a history which is dark and designed to tear apart one's identity.
First, allow me to introduce myself. I am a Métis woman living in Prince George. In the Métis tradition, we don't say "I'm 1/4 Métis" as this is meaningless for us. We talk about who our ancestors are and where they come from. My ancestors were from St Francis Xavier, part of the Red River Settlement. As a result of the scrip system, we moved to southern Saskatchewan and eventually to the area around North Battleford. My grandparents were born in Meadow Lake, as was my mother. She moved to BC as a young girl and I was born out here. I have scrip papers for a large number of my ancestors, including the Piches, Poitras, Delarondes, Morins and Aubichons. The Tanners were Anishinaabe and are thought to have taken treaty. It's upon these scrip papers that I've painted my collection.
These scrip papers have an extremely nuanced and complicated history. They do not exist for the altruistic purpose of helping us with our genealogy. They are the relics of the time when the Canadian Government tried to extinguish our indigenous title in the largest land swindle in the history of North America.
People believe that Métis means any mixed European and Indigenous ancestry, but this is not true. Métis ancestry is more about who your ancestors are and where they came from and whether they identified as Métis. The Métis people are one of the three indigenous peoples of Canada including the Inuit and First Nations people. When you are applying for Métis status, you need proof that your ancestors were part of the Métis culture which originates from the Red River Settlement in southern Manitoba. However, tracing your ancestry is not as simple as listing a birth location. You must also prove that your ancestors identified as Métis. It is commonly done through scrip records which declare ‘halfbreed’ ancestry.
Scrip is called the largest land swindle in North America's history. Scrip was a coupon that could be redeemed for money or land, after a lengthy application process. However, the complex bureaucracy was specifically designed to fail, so much like the treaty system that First Nations people went through, most of the promises were never fulfilled. The legacy of the scrip still impacts Métis people to this day.
After confederation, the Canadian government devised the treaty system to remove land from First Nations hands and leave them on reserves. When this was occurring, many Métis people wanted to be included in the treaties that their family members were part of, or given their own Métis reserves. It was seen as an avenue to have some 'legitimate' land. Instead, we were given the scrip system which resulted in the scattering of Métis people and almost no land being left in Métis hands.
In the early 1800s the government had been encroaching on Red River lands, even surveying over the homes where Métis families lived and giving them to settlers while the Métis were on their summer buffalo hunts.
This led to the Red River Resistance of 1885, which sought to affirm Métis rights in the constitution of Canada. The Métis won every battle but one, the Battle of Batoche, which resulted in the end of the resistance. The Canadian government sought to punish the Métis and ensure that a second resistance was not accomplished. So, they used many tactics to weaken us, including the famous slaughtering of the buffalo. This caused mass starvation among the Métis, Cree, Sioux and Anishinaabe people.
Taking advantage of our desperate situation, the government offered scrip which was a coupon that could be redeemed for money or land. The government designated scrip lands which were hundreds of kilometers away from the homeland and were often unsuitable for agriculture. So, families had to choose between moving to this unknown area or to choose a meager amount of money. Many chose money.
There were also speculators waiting outside of the scrip offices who would offer to purchase the scrip for a fraction of what it was worth. The church also offered to hold onto the scrip papers, with no proof of who it belonged to, the churches were able to acquire large amounts of land.
The Supreme Court of Canada, in 2003, called scrip ‘a sorry chapter in our nation’s history'. In 2013, they found that the federal government failed in its promise to the Métis people. Yet, even today there have been no restitution or recourse. Today, most scrip lands are not owned by Métis people.
Scrip for my ancestor, Zacharie Piche. His name is not present on the document
This policy led to the Métis people being spread far and wide across the land, an attempt to weaken our strong familial bonds. Each move would set my ancestors back for another generation, as it took time to build a successful farm. My ancestors moved many, many times. My ancestors ended up in Northern Saskatchewan, with other Métis families. Many Métis people did not have farms of their own and instead lived in narrow slices of land between the farmer’s field and the road called the ‘road allowance’. They slipped through the cracks, literally, and lived in extreme poverty.
This period of time was known as The Dark Times. We represent it in our sashes through the colour black. The land kept the people alive, as they relied on geese to fill the larders, berries to make pemmican, and mud to keep winter’s wind out of their homes. Poverty created a spirit of resiliency, cleverness, resourcefulness and strengthened the familial bonds within the community. During this period our people hid to escape persecution from the Canadians.
In order to escape destitution, some children ended up in residential schools, day schools or industrial schools. Some families hoped that their children might have food and an education in these schools while others had their children stolen from them. As we are now very aware, these schools did not care for the children. Those that came home returned deeply traumatized which would manifest as drug abuse, domestic violence and alcoholism. Others did not come home.
In my family, I am 3 generations removed from the residential schools. My great-grandparents attended schools, though it is very difficult to prove. This distance has allowed my mother to begin the healing that I benefit from today. And I pass that healing down to my own daughter.
For my family, the loss of land sits in our hearts. We feel a constant yearning for our lands, much in the same way that immigrants do. While my family has made a home and we feel our connection to this land, the land of the Lheidli T’enneh people, we know that it is not OUR land. When I visit the lands that were once ours, I see how they are not waiting for us to come home. The lands have been settled by others. The move out to BC has severed a lot of the family connections that I would have otherwise had. It’s cut us off from our people, language and our culture.
This story is one that all indigenous peoples in Canada share. Many of us feel disconnected. Many of us do not live in our ancestral homelands. Many of us lost our languages, culture, regalia and more. This is why we talk about colonization being a cultural genocide. Scrip has been part of that genocide.
I find healing in the land. When I think in a colonized mindset, that the land belongs to us, I weep the loss. It feels overwhelming and impossible to recover from. But when I remember that I do not own the land. The land owns me. Simply by the nature of my existence, I belong to the land and the land always welcomes me home.
These paintings are a rebellion against the very system which tried to extinguish our indigenous title to the land. Each time I reconnect with the land, make medicine, teach my daughter about our heritage, rekindle our spirit and speak our language I am rebelling against the very forces that sought to ‘kill the Indian in the man’. This is why I’ve made this art.
We are still here. We are indigenous. We are Métis, the people who own themselves.
I want to thank my incredibly funny, silly, smart and beautiful daughter, Aurora. My dear girl, you came into my life and opened another chamber of my heart. I didn't know it was possible to love someone so much. Maarsii for changing my life.
Maarsii to my family, friends and supporters who have helped make this possible. Maarsii to Studio 2880 for having me as their Artist in Residence. Maarsii to my ancestors, I am here today only because of the groundwork that they have done in the past. Each time I read their names, I am charged with their spirit. It helps me remember where I come from, so that I can pass on that spirit to my daughter, Aurora.